Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Do you really teach that stuff?

I had an interesting conversation with a member of the Alley Pond running club last Saturday night. We were at a dinner dance and awards ceremony and over the meal I was asked, “So what do you do?” The question comes up often, as in any conversation, but even more often when I tell people that I work in Hawaii on a regular basis. They seem to want to know what kind of cushy job I must have that takes me 6000 miles away in paradise. I don’t like telling people I’m a pastor. They start to treat me differently. They quit swearing in front of me—unless of course I swear in front of them which then gives them permission to be themselves but Jan says it isn’t classy and I agree so I try not to do it. But on this occasion I swallowed hard and told the truth. Part of this was motivated by the fact that I was sitting next to a friend who knew the truth so I couldn’t fudge. “I’m a pastor, and I work in churches in transition and this one happens to be in Hawaii. I work on a team.” The guy asking the question was great and began to philosophize on his religious upbringing. He was incredibly gracious and an interesting person. But then towards the end of the conversation he said, “So, I mean, do you really teach this stuff literally, the Bible, after all this is 2008?” I’d heard the question before and didn’t know exactly how to answer on this occasion, but I said something like this, “Absolutely! We believe that you can’t make up the Jesus of the New Testament. The tendency we have today is to drag Jesus down to our eye ball level so we feel comfortable with him. That Jesus won’t change your life. He’s just like you. We believe in the Jesus who really lived, died, and rose from the dead, the Jesus who claimed to be God. That Jesus will confront you when you screw up and comfort you when you feel bad about yourself. The New Testament is very different from much of what we see in religion today. In the Bible, God moves towards us. He pursues us. And we let that gospel, that good news, inform how we live. It touches every facet of our lives from how we handle racism, to conflict, to our money. We definitely teach the bible literally in the churches we work in.” His response to my explanation seemed to be one of genuine interest and respect.

For me personally as a Christ follower, I can’t pick and choose the commands that I want to keep. If Jesus is who he claimed to be then when he says, “Don’t lie” or “Don’t sleep around” that doesn’t mean I can do it now because it’s 2008. “Don’t murder” and “Love your brothers as yourself” is also something he commanded us. If that hasn’t changed, why have the other harder and inconvenient commands, changed? If Jesus is Lord, it doesn’t matter what he tells us to do or not to do. He has the final say. That’s my take on it.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Kite Runner

What is the price someone will pay for personal redemption? How far will we go if we think that in us lies the possibility of making things right with a friend we’ve offended, a loved one we’ve hurt, or even the God we’ve somehow turned our back on? The Kite Runner is that kind of a story. The story is set in pre-Soviet Afghanistan. Two boys are friends, one well to do, the other the son of the family servant. Kite flying was a popular Afghani sport and the servant boy has a unique gift related to kiting. As the story unfolds there is a tragic series of betrayals sandwiched between multiple acts of loyalty. The rich boy, Ahmir, betrays his young friend Hamman who would do anything for him. Ahmir eventually finds a way to make things right and the story ends with Ahmir learning to live loyally to those he loves.

The story challenges us to do the right thing even when the right thing is hard or hurtful. The contrast in the plot suggests that for those who fail to do right at first, there is the hope of redemption. The cost is high. “Nothing is free, there is a price” says one of the villains in the story. That line is repeated at several critical times in the course of the movie. In the end, the price for Ahmir is worth it. He risks everything to do what is right and learns the power of loyalty and the wonder of redemption.

This story is a reminder to me that people feel the need to make things right. But at what cost? The writers of the book and screen play got it right, there is a price. What I loved about the movie is the heart wrenching reality that we all feel the need to make things right. We all know deep inside that we’ve blown it, been disloyal to something or someone, and we need redemption, we need to make things right. But what about the cost? For me, as a sincere Christ follower, the cost is not something I have the capacity to pay. My disloyalties, my failures are too great. I'm flawed. I need grace. And what is the cost of grace? It cost a life—the life of Jesus. This is the essence of the Christian message. There is a price but someone else paid it. That person, Jesus, was a real historical figure who claimed to be God. He paid the price. So for us, through faith, it’s free. That’s the wonder of it all. No other world religion offers that. In religion, there is always something we must do for redemption--attend a service, read the bible, try hard to be good, join the Marines and fight the war on terror, quit drinking, give to charity, go to confession, whatever. That is the essence of religion; we do something to move towards God and hopefully we’ll be good enough to merit his favor--we hope. But in Christianity, God moves towards us. It is backwards or upside down of what most people feel must happen.

I loved the movie. A friend recommended it and my wife and one of my daughters have read the book. I can’t recommend it enough myself. Go see it quick before it leaves the theaters or you’ll have to wait a long time for the DVD. I'll be reading the book shortly.

Sweeny Todd

What does vengeance look like? If you want to know, check out this movie. If you don't care or think you have a handle on it, save yourself $10. This was the most gory movie I've ever seen. The message is clear. All of humankind deserves to die, why not help them out and degrade them in the process. Ah, revenge!

The movie's message shows just how easy it is for us to bite and devour one another through our sick, and often misguided, sense of revenge. Sweeny Todd shows how revenge darkens our lives, blinds us to what is real, and turns us into something equal to, or worse than, those we seek revenge on. In Sweeny Todd, revenge steals a man's soul and causes him to miss the points of beauty that come his way at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. Lewis Smeedes once said, "We never bring closure to vengeance. In the exchange of pain the accounts are never balanced. The reason is simple. When I am on the receiving end, the pain you cause me always feels worse to me than the pain I cause you. When I am on the giving end, the pain I cause you never feels as bad to me as the pain you cause me." In fact, the only thing that heals the poisonous drink of revenge is something equally compelling--forgiveness. Hmm. So how do we get that?

The movie is very dark both in its theme and in its visual effects. It recently won a Golden Globe award so someone thought it was worth seeing. It's a musical. One of my kids said, "Why would you want to go see that movie?" I answered, "Because a friend recommended it." I'm not sure I can, personally. I wouldn't see it again, but it does depict the reality of something deeply rooted in the soul of every man and woman so it is worthy of consideration. But for me, the Chinese food and conversation we had with a good friend afterward was more compelling, and not nearly as gross.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Getting Started

A few years ago I got an email from a friend, “Well,” he said, “I’m jumping into it.” He was referring to blogging. Frankly, it didn’t appeal to me at the time. Why share my thoughts and feelings on a venue that even Osama Bin Laden has access to? But things have changed. I want this blog to be a place for me to share the things on my mind with the people most important to me. Right now, there’s a lot of things on my mind and I have a lot of people who are important to me.

The blog is called the 22nd mile because I run marathons. I have not always done this. It is a new “the kids are grown and out of the house” hobby that has captivated my imagination. I love to run. In high school and college I was a wrestler. I loved the organized aggression of the sport. It was a huge part of my life and early in my personal formation the sport, the teammates, and my coaches shaped me dramatically. Now, later in life, running is doing the same thing. The 22nd mile of a marathon is the place where I hit the wall. Others hit it earlier. Some elite runners say they never hit it (we all suspect they are liars) but mile 22 is where I hit it. The wall is that place that defines the kind of runner you will be. The wall is the place where your body says, “I’ve had enough. We are stopping this nonsense, now!” But you don’t stop. You can’t stop. How you handle the wall says a lot about you as a runner and as a person. In fact, how you handle the wall may actually define you as a runner or as a person. But then life is like that isn’t it. Life is a series of walls and how we handle them can often define who we become.

I am also a surfer. I am a member of the Surfrider Foundation. I love the water and the thrill of catching a wave. I’ve been surfing for nearly twenty years. My ability to do it was sharpened when we lived in San Diego. Now we live in New York City. I surf year round in New York (yes, it gets real cold) and at this posting, I am also working on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii—wave heaven. I guess I need a physical challenge to keep me sharp. While running is a hobby, I am beginning to wonder if surfing is more of a calling. Surfing, more than running, gets me closer to the thing that drives me the most, the thing that really defines who I am. Many of us define ourselves by what we do, or what we’ve done, or how much education we have, or who we know, or whatever. I admit that I have been defined myself by those things in the past and to some extent in the present. So what really defines me now?

At age 15 I became a devoted Christ follower and now, more than ever, he defines me. Notice I didn’t say the “C” word (I mean the word Christian). Frankly, the term Christian, though it is a perfectly good word and found in the New Testament, has begun to turn me off. This isn’t because it seems to now be in vogue to no longer describe ones self as a Christian, even if you are. That turns me off too. I would say I have been wrestling with this word for probably two to three years now because it has become a loaded term in our culture. It seems to mean a person who is a “right wing republican who is often uptight about life and who can’t face his or her own issues yet everything is always great because Jesus saved them” kind of word. That’s not me, or at least it is not me anymore. That has changed over the years. I am a follower of Jesus.

For my friends who are not sure where you sit or stand in regards to Jesus or religion (another word I don’t like) please know that I accept you as you are. But because I am a follower of Jesus, and because he defines me, and because I love that relationship, sometimes that will come out in my speech. We all talk about those things we really enjoy whether it is something or someone! As a matter of fact, sometimes I wonder if what we worship comes out in what we talk about most. Hmmm. Maybe not. Though all of us worship or serve something or somebody. Even Dillon said that. At any rate, if you want to know me, this is part of me. For those of you who are followers of Jesus, even Christians described by the above mentioned “right wing republican…,” I am at a point in my life where the religiosity of our faith is hard for me. You’ll have to forgive and forebear me because in my posts I probably won’t always be a popular guy with you. The scary thing is that I am a pastor and it is my job to facilitate change in churches that are often very much into being religious. Does God have a sense of humor or what?! More on that later or visit restoringchurches.org.

Other than Jesus and my hobbies, I enjoy my family. My wife of twenty-seven years has a keen sense of what goes on in people’s lives, often without them even knowing it. She is a courageous woman who has given her life to serve others. We have moved across the country twice—and we are still married. She is a New York City public school teacher. I am outgoing. She is an introvert. I am expressive. She tends to be more subdued. I blurt things out in conversations. She tends to be quiet and take things in. We have worked very hard on our marriage. This has been painful but it has produced a depth of intimacy that is quite enjoyable. We’ve run through the wall together and we are moving towards the finish line and still running!!

I have three girls and two sons in law. Laurel is married to Noah. She is a lot like me. Our high school graduation pictures look like we are twins. She teaches school in New York City. She is 23. Katie is a senior in college and is enjoying life single and young. She dances and wants to be small business owner of a dance studio. She just turned 22. Lyndi is 20 and married to Chris. They are the newest married of our kids. They are expecting a baby in the spring. Chris will be heading into the military shortly (we think) and they live in southern California, the land of broken dreams. Lyndi went there to escape New York. Now she wants to escape southern California! People are shallow there. It is true. But it is our second home. Jan is a native Californian and we were married there, we’ve lived there, helped start a church there, went to school there, vacationed there, have many good friends there, and all our relatives on Jan’s side of the family live there. What can I say? Dude—it’s like totally our second home!

This blog will be the place where I put thoughts on books I'm reading, music, art, bible, pleasure, surfing, running, and relationships on line for everyone to see and interact with. I suspect I’ll add a journal once every week or two once I get things up and running. I'll also add some pictures of my family and friends. In the meantime, thanks for reading this and please feel free to post a response. In the future, I’ll be taking pieces of this first post and placing into different sections of the blog. This is my first stab at it so it will take some time to figure it all out.